Martin Luther was a man whose heart was held captive to the Word of God. He was used mightily by God to usher in the Protestant Reformation, which would serve to recover the core truths of the Gospel that had been obscured by medieval religion and superstition.
Here is a brief biography of the man who sparked the Reformation.
The Early Years
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany to Margaret and Hans Luder (the original pronunciation).
Hans worked in the mining industry, even owning a few copper mines, but he wanted something better for his son. Martin was sent off to boarding school and then to the University of Erfurt.
He was an excellent student. He soon earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and seemed to be well on his way to success as a law student. But about a month into his legal studies, on the 2nd of June in 1505, Luther was on his way back to school from his parent’s home when he was caught in a violent thunderstorm. The storm grew more intense and Luther became afraid for his life.
Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck near him, throwing him violently to the ground. Luther cried: “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk!”
Luther’s life was spared, and – much to the displeasure of his father – Luther entered the monastery two weeks later to begin a new life as an Augustinian monk.
Luther the Monk
As a monk, Luther sought earnestly to find acceptance from God. Like others in his day, Luther believed the Catholic Church’s teaching on how people are to be saved: not by God’s grace alone, but by God’s grace enabling you to do the work necessary to earn your own salvation.
This infographic provides a helpful snapshot of the medieval view of salvation:
But Luther had no confidence in his ability to remain in a state of Grace. He was terrified of God’s wrath and was wracked with uncertainty about his ability to earn God’s favor through his works. What could he do to try and ease his troubled conscience? Well, work harder it seemed.
“When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fasting, vigils, prayers, and other rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works.”
He began to see Christ not as a loving Savior, but as a harsh and terrible judge. This is why Luther wearied himself – and others – nearly to death. He would be in the confessional for hours at a time and then, after leaving, would return again due to some unconfessed sin or to confess that he had not quite been sorrowful enough in his previous confession.
An exasperated mentor of his in the monastery said, “Brother Martin, why don’t you go out and commit some real sins, and come back when you have something to confess?”
Luther was as diligent a monk as you could hope to find. He would later look back on this period of his life and say “If ever a monk could get to heaven by his monkery, it was I.” But he was obviously in great distress about his spiritual condition. What were they to do with ‘brother Martin’?
Disillusioned in Rome
The decision was made in 1510 to send Luther to Rome. The trip was intended to restore his spirits and allow him to visit the sacred sites and holy relics. This would serve to rejuvenate him, and venerating the relics would give him an opportunity to earn indulgences.
An indulgence was an act of service or a donation to the church that was accompanied by a promise on behalf of the Pope to reduce your time in purgatory, where those who were bound for heaven were first ‘purged’ of their sins in order to enter into God’s presence.
The idea was that the church would take excess merit from Christ and the saints from the “treasury of merit” and apply it to your account. A partial indulgence would reduce time in purgatory; a plenary indulgence would eliminate it altogether.
However, as excited as Luther was when he began his journey, he was quickly disillusioned by the gaudy wealth and sinful lifestyles of the priests in Rome. Visiting the relics and sacred sites did not help either.
When Luther went up the Scala Sancta – the supposed steps Christ walked up to meet Pontius Pilate – on his knees, praying, and kissing each step as was prescribed, all he could say when he reached the top was “Who knows whether this is true?” The doubts about church’s teaching began to take root.
He returned to Erfurt more despondent than ever. Even so, he was transferred to the University in Wittenberg to become a professor. Here he began to truly study Scripture, and he began to search diligently for how sinful man could be made right before God. From 1513-1517 he studied and taught through the books of Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.
The Issue of Indulgences
Meanwhile, the question of indulgences continued to bother Luther. These blessings that the church supposedly gave out of the ‘treasury of merit’ were now able to be acquired in exchange for money donated as a sign of repentance to massive building projects such as Saint Peter’s Basilica which was begun in 1506. What’s more, indulgences could be acquired on behalf of the dead. For Luther, this was just too much.
The most famous peddler of these indulgences was a slick salesman named Johan Tetzel, whose famous line “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” was enough to cause many peasants to give of their limited means to help free themselves or a loved one from years of torment.
Tetzel would go from town to town, crying out:
“Don’t you hear the voices of your dead parents and other relatives crying out, “Have mercy on us, for we suffer great punishment and pain. From this, you could release us with a few alms . . . We have created you, fed you, cared for you and left you our temporal goods. Why do you treat us so cruelly and leave us to suffer in the flames, when it takes only a little to save us?”
The illegitimacy of indulgences on behalf of the dead is why Luther decided to post the 95 Theses.
The 95 Theses
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This single act, though not particularly unusual or defiant, would reverberate across countries, across continents, and across centuries.
This was the act which sparked the Protestant Reformation, and it was the Protestant Reformation that brought light into darkness and recovered the core truths of the gospel obscured by medieval religion.
Luther wanted to have an earnest theological discussion about whether issuing indulglences on behalf of the dead was was Biblical or approved by the Pope. At this point he did not question indulgences altogether, or purgatory, or the primacy of the Pope.
In fact, he defended the Pope, and assumed the Pope would put a stop to this shady sale of indulgences. He said, basically, ‘If this were true, and the Pope could let people out of Purgatory, why in the name of love would he not just let everyone out?!’
Luther was not trying to cause trouble. This was an academic and theological issue, and his 95 Theses were written in Latin, not the language of the people. Without his knowledge or permission, these Theses were translated by some of his students from Latin to German and distributed.
Thanks to the new technology of the printing press, within 2 weeks nearly every village in Germany had a copy. The ideas soon took hold, and storm clouds began to loom on the horizon.
The Righteous Shall Live by Faith
As tensions mounted with the church authorities, Luther’s inner turmoil about sin and salvation continued. All at once, as if reading it for the first time, Luther came to understand the full meaning of Romans 1:17, which says
“For in it [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Luther said of his revelation:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
Salvation is by grace through faith – not by prayers or fasting or pilgrimages or sacraments. Righteousness before God was not earned by our works, but was a gift from God to us received by faith! It is what Luther would come to call a “foreign righteousness;” an “alien righteousness” that comes from outside of us. It is Christ’s righteousness, applied to us through faith.
Luther was overjoyed – But this Gospel truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone (and not of works) immediately brought Luther into even greater contention with Catholic doctrine. What was he to do? Should he ignore Scripture to obey the church, or should he challenge the church to obey Scripture?
Rather than being subject to both sacred Scripture and sacred tradition, as the church taught, Luther believed that we are to be subject to Scripture alone – and that Scripture has the authority to correct the traditions when they are in error. He said:
“A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council…for the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and council.”
In the coming months, Luther went on to declare that salvation was by grace alone and not by works, that the church was not infallible, that Jesus Christ – and not the Pope – was the head of the church, and that priests and the sacraments were not necessary to receive God’s grace.
A war of words ensued. A papal bull, or edict, called Luther to repent and threatened him with excommunication. On December 10, 1520, Luther burned it. This was tantamount to treason.
Luther wrote more theological works, many of which spoke against the sacramental system of the Roman church. Luther declared “No Christian believer can be forced [to believe an article of faith] beyond Holy Scripture.”
The Diet of Worms
On April 17, 1521, Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms – an imperial council held in Worms, Germany which would decide the fate of this troublesome monk. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the 5th presided over the affair.
There was a large table with all of Luther’s writings on it. The Roman officials demanded to know if these were his writings and whether or not he would recant.
Luther had expected to debate his ideas, not be forced to recant them. He asked for a day to consider the matter. If he recanted, his life would be saved. If he did not, he would be declared a heretic, which was a death sentence in those days. Although he had a letter granting him safe passage to and from Worms, when this expired he knew he could be killed by anyone and they would not be punished. The civil government would likewise put him to death, as they had countless others who crossed Rome.
After much prayer, Martin Luther returned to the council and boldly declared:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.
Luther took a stand that his highest authority was going to be the Word of God, regardless of what the church taught.
To protect his life, his friends kidnapped him and hid him away in Wartburg Castle. Here he hid for ten months in disguise. (He grew a beard and took the name Junker Jorge, or Knight George).
But “hiding” doesn’t quite convey the tremendous amount of work that Luther was doing at Wartburg. He was not simply laying low. During his time in exile, Luther undertook the translation of the New Testament into the language of the German people.
Remember, at this time Scripture was only available in Latin. Whether you were English, or German, or French, or Spanish, your Bible was in Latin – The Latin Vulgate, the Bible that Jerome had produced in A.D. 380. But the people couldn’t speak Latin, and the clergy were not well trained in Latin. Reading and studying Scripture was something reserved only for the academics and the elite.
Luther did not simply take the Vulgate and translate the Latin into German. No, he went back to the original sources, “Ad Fontes,” to the fount. He translated his German New Testament out of the original Greek.
Within three months Luther had translated the whole of the New Testament. This is an amazing feat, and is even more so considering the monumental impact that this translation would have on the German people. For the first time, an ordinary believer could read the Bible for themselves.
Luther was helped by his friend and fellow reformer Phillip Melanchthon (a much better Greek scholar) and, having begun the New Testament in November or December of 1521, completed it in March of 1522 – just before he left Wartburg Castle to return to Wittenberg. After some revising, the German New Testament was made available in September of 1522.
Luther immediately set to work on translating the Old Testament. The first five books, the Pentateuch, appeared in 1523 and the Psalms were finished in 1524. By 1534 the entire Bible had been translated. This was not the first German translation, but it was the finest and became the primary Bible of the German people. Luther knew that for the people to return to the truth of the Gospel – that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, they needed Scripture in their own language.
If Luther had done nothing else, had never preached a sermon, had never written a treatise, had never insulted a pope, had never taken a stand at Worms, his translating of Scripture into German would have propelled the Reformation onward.
Because the Bible was no longer in a foreign language, but the language of the people, the Reformation was not dependent on the works of any of the Reformers but depended instead on the Word of God.
The people consumed the Word at an phenomenal rate. On Wittenberg printer sold about a hundred thousand copies in 40 years, which is an enormously large number at that age, and these copies were read and reread by millions of Germans.
Church historian Philip Schaff said: “The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and hearts of the Germans … He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house.”
Luther would not disagree with this statement.
“Let them destroy my works! I deserve nothing better; for all my wish has been to lead souls to the Bible, so that they might afterwards neglect my writings. Great God! if we had a knowledge of Scripture, what need would there be of any books of mine?”
Translating Scripture into the language of the common people would become a hallmark of the Protestant Reformation, with translations in Spanish, French, English, and other languages close behind.
From a budding lawyer, to a neurotic monk, to a bold reformer, Martin Luther’s life had a powerful impact on the Protestant Reformation and the whole of world history.
All the remaining years of Luther’s life were dedicated to helping the fledgling Reformation take hold. And take hold it did. Thanks in large part to the preaching, teaching, and writing of Luther the theology of the Reformation spread throughout Germany and to other countries in Europe.
Martin Luther, whose heart was held captive by the Word of God and who was used by God to usher in the Protestant Reformation, died on February 18, 1546 in Eisleben – the city of his birth. When he died, over half a million copies of the “Luther Bible” were in circulation, and his works and writings had began the Reformation.
Luther left us a complex and sometimes controversial legacy. But it is clear that – despite his faults – he was used greatly by God to restore Scripture to its proper place of authority in the life of the church and in the life of the individual believer.
Luther was emboldened to risk his life for the truth that Scripture alone is to be our ultimate authority in all spiritual matters. This doctrine came to be known as Sola Scriptura.
It is for this reason that the Protestant Reformation was able to continue spreading even after his death. As bold a leader as Luther was, the Reformation was not about a cult of personality – it was a movement to return to the truth of Scripture.
Looking back at his life prior to his death, Luther remarked:
“I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing…the Word did it all.”
Some Recommended Luther Biographies
- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton
- Luther and the Reformation: How a Monk Discovered the Gospel by RC Sproul
- The Legacy of Luther by RC Sproul and Stephen Nichols
 Steve Lawson, The Mighty Boldness of Martin Luther, 5-6.
 Martin Luther’s Account of His Own Conversion
 “What Luther Said,” Christianity Today.
 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 341.